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Cairo's Historic Cemetery of al-Suyuti Conflicting Claims.



With the exception of the shrine and mosque of the late Mamluk scholar Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti after whom the cemetery is named, this cemetery’s shrines house mostly obscure, and often forgotten religious figures. They are also extremely fluid both physically as markers with their form changing quite organically, and conceptually as narratives and myths as new stories and identifications are attached to them. Thus the shrine of Rayhan (whose origins are now obscure) is re-identified as the shrine of Sana wa Thana by a scholar in the 1990s only to have all physical signs of identification eradicated by the caretaker. We even have a shrine that was moved from the banks of the Nile to here (al-Shaykh al-Baz) while the most popular of the shrines marks the grave of a 20th century Rifa’i Sufi called ‘Abata (literally “idiocy”).
In this section the cemetery’s 10 shrines are documented, and their stories are told. Other sites of myth and superstition are also detailed.
These shrines paint a picture of myth and ritual that is very different from what we get when we look at Cairo’s more prominent shrines – the likes of al-Sayyida Nafisa, al-Sayyida Zaynab and al-Husayn. The obscure shrines in this section are not maintained – or in some case even recognized by the Waqf authorities, and only rely on extremely local patronage for survival. They are thus dependant either on the alms provided by visitors who mostly come in search of very specific manifestations of grace – the curing of a certain disease or the fulfillment of a particular type of wish. Or alternatively they continue to function through the ‘marketing skills’ of their caretakers, generally descendants of the original shaykhs, for whom the trickle of visitors is a source of livelihood. The religious map of Egypt cannot be understood in isolation from these kinds of minor shrines – shrines whose value lies in their ability to negotiate the divide between mainstream conservative Islam and this more personal version of spirituality. Will they survive? With the current rise of fundamentalist Islam, it is difficult to tell.